Something is ‘up’. When two Financial Times columnists – pillars of the western Establishment – raise a warning flag, we must take note: Martin Wolf was first off, with a piece dramatically headlined: The looming 100-year, US-China Conflict. No ‘mere’ trade war, he implied, but a full-spectrum struggle. Then his FT colleague Edward Luce, pointed out that Wolf’s “argument is more nuanced than the headline. Having spent part of this week among leading policymakers and thinkers at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Colorado,” Lucetr writes, “I am inclined to think Martin was not exaggerating. The speed with which US political leaders of all stripes have united behind the idea of a ‘new cold war’ is something that takes my breath away. Eighteen months ago the phrase was dismissed as fringe scaremongering. Today it is consensus.”
A significant shift is underway in US policy circles, it seems. Luce’s final ‘take’ is that “it is very hard to see what, or who, is going to prevent this great power rivalry from dominating the 21st century”. It is clear that there is indeed now a clear bi-partisan consensus in the US on China. Luce is surely right. But that is far from being the end of it. A collective psychology of belligerence seems to be taking shape, and, as one commentator noted, it has become not just a great-power rivalry, but a rivalry amongst ‘Beltway’ policy wonks to show “who has the bigger dick”.
And quick to demonstrate his, at Aspen (after others had unveiled their masculinity on China and Iran), was the US envoy for Syria (and deputy US National Security Adviser), James Jeffrey: A US policy boiled down to one overriding component: ‘hammering Russia’. “Hammering Russia” (he insisted repeatedly), will continue until President Putin understands there is no military solution in Syria (he said with heightened verbal emphasis). Russia falsely assumes that Assad has ‘won’ war: “He hasn’t”, Jeffrey said. And the US is committed to demonstrating this fundamental ‘truth’.
Therefore, the US plans to ‘up the pressure’; will escalate the cost to Russia, until a political transition is in place, with a new Syria emerging as a “normal nation”. The US will ‘leverage’ the costs on Russia across the board: Through military pressure – ensuring a lack of military progress in Idlib; through Israelis operating freely across Syria’s airspace; through ‘US partners’ (i.e. the Kurds) consolidating in NE Syria; through economic costs (“our success” in stopping reconstruction aid to Syria); through extensive US sanctions on Syria (integrated with those on Iran) – “these sanctions are succeeding”; and thirdly, by diplomatic pressure: i.e. “hammering Russia” in the UN.
Well, the US shift on Syria also takes one’s breath away. Recall how little time ago, the talk was of partnership, of the US working with Russia to find a solution in Syria. Now the talk of the US Envoy is the talk of Cold War with Russia as much as were his Aspen colleagues – albeit in respect to China. Such ‘machismo’ is evidenced too coming from the US President: “I could – if I wanted – end the US war in Afghanistan in a week”, (but it would entail the deaths of 10 million Afghans), Trump excalimed. And, in the same mode, Trump now suggests that for Iran, he is easy: war or not – either path is fine, for him.
All this braggadocio is reminiscent of late 2003 when the war in Iraq was just entering its insurgent stage: It was said then that mere “boys go to Baghdad; but real men chose to go to Tehran”. It gained wide circulation in Washington at the time. This type of talk gave rise, as I well recall, to something approaching an hysteric elation. Officials seemed to be walking six inches above the ground, in anticipation of all the dominos expected to fall in succession.
The point here is that the tacit coupling of Russia – now termed a major ‘foe’ of America by US Defence officials – and China, inevitably is being refracted back at the US, in terms of a growing strategic Russo-Chinese partnership, ready to challenge the US and its allies.
Last Tuesday, a Russian aircraft, flying in a joint air patrol with a Chinese counterpart, deliberately entered South Korean airspace. And, just earlier, two Russian Tu-95 bombers and two Chinese H-6 warplanes — both nuclear capable — reportedly had entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone.
“This is the first time I’m aware of that Chinese and Russian fighters have jointly flown through the air defence identification zone of a major US ally — in this case two US allies. Clearly it’s geopolitical signalling as well as intelligence collection,” said Michael Carpenter, a former Russia specialist with the US Department of Defense. It was a message to the US, Japan, and South Korea: If you strengthen the US-Japan military alliance, Russia and China have no choice but to react militarily as well.
So, as we look around, the picture seems to be one in which US bellicosity is somehow consolidating as an élite consensus (with but a few individuals courageously pushing-back on the trend). So what is going on?
The two FT correspondents effectively were signalling – in their separate articles – that the US is entering on a momentous and hazardous transformation. Further, it would seem that America’s élite is being fractured into balkanised enclaves that are not communicating with one another – nor wanting to communicate with each other. Rather, it is another conflict between deadly rivals.
One such orientation insists on a renewal of the Cold War to sustain and renew that supersized military-security complex, which accounts for more than half of America’s GDP. Another élite demands that US dollar global hegemony be preserved. Another orientation of the Deep State is disgusted at the contagion of sexual decadence and corruption that has wormed its way into American governance – and truly hopes that Trump will ‘drain the swamp’. And yet another, which sees DC’s now explicit amorality as risking the loss of America’s global standing and leadership – wants to see a return of traditional American mores – a ‘moral rearmament’, as it were. (And then there are the deplorables, who simply want that America should attend to its own internal refurbishment.)
But all these divided Deep State factions believe that belligerence can work.
However, the more these fractured, rival US élite factions with their moneyed and comfortable lifestyles, cloister themselves in their enclaves, certain in their separate views about how America can retain its global supremacy, the less likely it is that they will understand the very real impact of their collective belligerence on the outside world. Like any cosseted élite, they have an exaggerated sense of their entitlement – and their impunity.
These élite factions – for all their internal rivalry – however seem to have coalesced around a singularity of talking and thinking that allows the dominant classes to substitute for the reality of an America subject to severe stress and strain – the fable of a hegemon which still can elect which non-compliant governments and peoples to bully and remove from the global map. Their rhetoric alone is curdling the atmospherics in the non-West.
But a further implication of the incoherence within the élites is applicable to Trump. It is widely assumed that because he says he does not want more wars – and because he is US President – wars will not happen. But that is not how the world works.
The leader of any nation is never sovereign. He or she sits atop a pyramid of quarrelling princelings (Deep State princelings, in this instance), who have their own interests and agenda. Trump is not immune to their machinations. One obvious example being Mr Bolton’s successful gambit in persuading the Brits to seize the Grace I tanker off Gibraltar. At a stroke, Bolton escalated the conflict with Iran (‘increased the pressure’ on Iran, as Bolton would probably term it); put the UK at the forefront of America’s ‘war’ with Iran; divided the JCPOA signatories, and embarrassed the EU. He is a canny ‘operator’ – no doubt about it.
And this is the point: these princelings can initiate actions (including false flags) that drive events to their agenda; that can corner a President. And that is presuming that the President is somehow immune to a great ‘switch in mood’ among his own lieutenants (even if that consensus is nothing more than a fable that belligerency succeeds). But is it safe to assume Trump is immune to the general ‘mood’ amongst the varied élites? Do not his recent glib comments about Afghanistan and Iran suggest that he might leaning towards the new belligerency? Martin Wolf concluded his FT piece by suggesting the shift in the US suggests we may be witnessing a stumbling towards a century of conflict. But in the case of Iran, any mis-move could result in something more immediate – and uncontained.